Thursday, June 26, 2008

If You're Only Seeing Red, "Speed" is More than Meets the Eye

It's safe to assume that you missed "Speed Racer." Waiting for the DVD, are you? Right, and you probably already have the laserdisc on pre-order, too. It's okay; I get it. It had a monkey in it -- a perfectly justifiable gripe. I mean, it's not even a CG monkey and it's not voiced by Bruce Willis. Wake up, Wachowski brothers! Americans demand a certain level of integrity!

Sorry. False start. I'll try and control myself this time around...

"Speed Racer" got a bad rap. It's not that I don't understand why -- I do. But, unsurprisingly to those who know me, I think the fact that everyone seems to hate it only bolsters my argument. First, let's get the concessions out of the way. I freely admit that a monkey is part of the principle cast. The number of scenes featuring the monkey (its name is Chim-chim, but I'll stick with the improper noun) is indeed distressing, and an indicator of perhaps the movie's greatest flaw: someone thought this should be a kids' movie. I don't know if it was the Wachowski brothers' idea or the studio's, but either way, it was a big miscalculation. Nevertheless, it was largely a marketing miscalculation, because the scenes in the actual film that are meant to hook the kids in are mostly isolated and somewhat rare. The rest of the film's two-plus hours are filled with violence, language, tongue in cheek humor and action sequences that are so kinetic they'd probably send an eight year old into seizures. In other words, this isn't really a kids' movie, even if the cereal boxes tell you so.

Those points aside, the film is still anything but perfect. In typical Wachowski style, characters seem to love the sound of their own voice. I would suggest that, in the future, studios bring in someone to edit these guys' screenplays, but it's hard to say if their signature meta-philosophical hokeyness would still come through. The brothers may be self-indulgent, but they're also pretty self conscious. An early scene where Trixie tries to coax a kiss from Speed illustrates this well. The scene becomes tedious rather quickly, but only by design, as you'll probably laughing at the couple's absurd level of chastity long before the obligatory interruption of Speed's little brother and his... monkey. Of course, there are other scenes where the only thing that's funny is the lack of self-consciousness. Who knew discussions of racing could be so plodding?

I have already said far too much about the script, however, because the true strength of the film is in its visuals. Critics complained about them, too, but here's where I think they couldn't be more wrong. They had a field day tearing down what they perceived as an incoherent blur of Warholian "car-fu." (Yeah, I just used that phrase.) Now, you would think with all the invocations of Warhol's name, critics would have some idea of the importance of thinking outside the box, but it's not evident in their closed-minded perception of the film. The Wachowski brothers, for all their flamboyant style, are very adept filmmakers. Where other directors ignore or undervalue the fundamentals (continuity, camerawork, cutting, composition, etc.) for the sake of style, the Wachowskis build upon them.

In some ways, the film may look very similar to other current (genuinely bad) action movies, with its extreme stylization and quick pace. Michael Bay's "Transformers," for example, is all about constant cutting. "Speed Racer" is just as quickly paced, but cuts less often. Ths is indicative of much more succinct direction. More importantly, though, when it does cut in "Speed," it is made blatantly obvious where we are cutting to. You may wonder why this matters, but anyone who has studied film knows that this is absolutely integral to the cohesiveness of a film. When you see someone walk out of a door on the right side of a shot, you expect them to walk into the next room on the left side. Otherwise, it looks like they've just entered the Twilight Zone. Granted, Michael Bay probably knows enough to handle that scenario, but when you have hyperkinetic battle sequences taking place, there is a lot more action to keep track of. When the director fails at maintaining such continuity, it goes from kinetic to chaotic. While the directors of "Speed Racer" may send their camera rocketing throughout the space of the scene, they always avoid such chaos. Thus, they have a very stylized look, but it's not at the expense of cohesiveness.

I could go on all day explaining similar details that speak to the fundamentally adept directing of the Wachowskis versus directors like Bay, but I'll resist. Your average critic is smart enough to notice these things, and accordingly, most recognize Bay as all sound and fury. Some of them may not see what I see in the Wachowskis, however, and this is magnified by one final feature of the style of "Speed Racer": a unique treatment of time. Those who have seen the Wachowskis' "Matrix" films know that they like their slow motion, and employ it not as a dramatic flourish, but as a basic weapon in their directing arsenal. It's simply part of their style -- something borne of the directors' roots in anime. In "Speed," we see a similar fluidity of time's treatment on a larger scale. There are seamless transitions from past to present, a technique that only becomes more prominent as the film progresses. The fluidity exists for a reason, though. Speed's brother, for example, is surely on his mind whenever he returns to the track where his brother died, so memories of a time they spent there together would creep in as Speed is racing in the present. The Wachowskis organize their scenes thematically, not chronologically.

With both time and space being treated in such unique ways, it is easy to see how many viewers will be put off by the film's style. With the brothers doing their basic duties as directors, however, it is clear that it is more a question of taste than it is one of quality. The Wachowskis are delivering something very unique with "Speed Racer" and something, I believe, that is ahead of its time. Just as "The Matrix" is still being echoed throughout modern action films ("Wanted," anyone?), I believe the Wachowski brothers are once again at the bleeding edge with this film. It's hard to see behind the marketing misfires and monkey antics, but I wouldn't be surprised if this film has gained a bit more respect when we look back a few years from now. A few critics noted that "Speed" may indeed be the most expensive art house film ever made. They should have put that on the cereal boxes.

Oh, and it's never too late to order that laserdisc.

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